31 May 2009

Workplace bullying can wreak havoc on the job, sapping productivity, devastating morale and increasing absenteeism.

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Verbal harassment at work, practical jokes, threats, intimidation, and even sabotage, are all the hallmarks of a workplace bully.

As opposed to tough management, "bullying is a level of misery that falls disproportionally on the few," said Gary Namie, director of the Workplace Bullying Institute in Bellingham, Wash.

A 2007 survey by the institute and Zogby International found that 37 percent of American workers have been bullied at work. Nearly three-quarters, 72 percent, of the bullies are bosses, the survey said.

And as companies struggle, experts say workplace bullying has grown as people fear job loss.

"It is just really out of fear. Where there is fear there is a need to control," said Terri Dawe, employee assistance coordinator at CPC Behavioral Healthcare, which has centers around Monmouth County. "It is escalating in these economic times and jobs being tenuous."

The tight job market has compounded the problem, Namie said. "It's a buyer's market. Now the attitude is, "I can treat you however I want and you can leave and I can find more like you.' "

Like the school yard, bullies cause problems at work.

"In terms of overall morale, it is horrible," said Alan Cavaiola, an associate professor at Monmouth University and co-author of "Toxic Co-Workers: How to Deal With Dysfunctional People on the Job." "Everyone kind of tiptoes around this person. It is very much like walking on egg shells."

In one case, Cavaiola said a female worker was harassed by two male supervisors, who made sexually demeaning remarks. Her boss didn't take her complaints seriously, she quit her job and sued.

"They are very narcissistic. They are very self-centered," Cavaiola said of workplace bullies. "They lack empathy. They lack compassion."

But unlike schoolyard bullies, bullies at work tend to target people who are a threat to them, said Namie. Their victims may be stronger performers or better liked.

"The bully is a political animal and knows how organizations run and knows that aggression pays off and is rewarded," Namie said. "You have a player against a person who is basically a do-gooder, someone with a social orientation who (keeps) their nose to the grindstone."

A bully is different from a hard-charging boss, said Red Bank workplace coach Donna Coulson, owner of Donna Coulson & Associates. A hard boss may not smile and give a lot of work to people, but they tend to challenge employees, she said.

"A bully will bully you whether things are good or bad or indifferent," she said.

So what's a worker to do?

If possible, talk to the person later in private, Coulson said. "If you stand up to the bully, they will eventually stop," she said.

Dawe said a worker has to recognize bullying which can be hard to define. But once they do, they should make a diary of what they experience, including dates and times, so they can bring it to human resources, she said.

Namie recommend that workers take a three-prong approach. "You have to recognize that it's happening to you," Namie said. "In a way, that takes a long time. They can't believe it is happening to them, so they are in denial themselves."

They should take time off from work to check their physical and mental health, and look for violations of company policy, he said. Consult a lawyer, he said.

"You need to start to build a business case, the unemotional case, that the bully is too expensive to keep," Namie said.

Take the case to the highest level position who is not pledged or not related to the bully, he added.

Namie said he supports a bill in the state Assembly, called the "Healthy Workplace Act." It would make abusive conduct in a workplace — repeated use of derogatory remarks, insults and epithets that are intimidating and humiliating — illegal. Employers violating that standard could be fined up to $25,000. The bill is currently before the Assembly Labor Committee.

"Workplace bullying is an underappreciated problem," said Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein, D-Middlesex. "Studies have shown that workplace bullying occurs much more frequently than sexual harassment, yet has not received nearly as much attention."

Kathleen M. Connelly, a lawyer at Lindabury, McCormick, Estabrook & Cooper in Rumson, said employers have to recognize the need to address the problem.

"Employers have dropped the ball in not recognizing that an essential element of being a supervisor is managing people, and that means being able to do that in a respectful manner."

But legislation is not the answer, she said.

"This statute would basically give every employee in the workplace a vehicle to commence litigation," she said. "Do we want to be in a situation where our court systems become overwhelmed with burdens with every employee grievance?"


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